Daily Archives: April 29, 2013

People of the Book

I rarely review fiction, but I’ve got a nice book I’d like to recommend. My friend Amy suggested it to me on facebook a while back when I was casting around for a novel to read. The novel is People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks.


Although a lot of people made a wider range of suggestions on my facebook post, I knew that when I saw Amy’s suggestion it was the one I should try. She knows enough about me (we worked together for a few years) to zero in on something that I would appreciate, and she’s a person who understand literature at a level above me, so it was unlikely that I would go wrong following her suggestion.

People of the Book is about, well, a book, and the people … well, the people of that book. As you might expect. The book is a Haggadah, which is the Jewish document used in the Passover Seder. The details of what a Haggadah contains are not too important; suffice it to say that any practicing Jewish family has one (or several … you can get cheap paperback ones to pass around so everyone can follow along). There is one particularly famous one, the Sarajevo Haggadah, which is a real thing. It is odd because it is very old yet brilliantly illuminated. Many scholars think that a Haggadah of those times would not have been illuminated because the practice of drawing images would have been banned among Jews as it was among Muslims. The Sarajevo Haggadah was probably made around 1350, probably in Spain, and it has a rich history, having squeaked by various inquisitions and book burnings and having been threatened with destruction during the siege of Sarajevo.

One of these figures has African features.  I'm told.
One of these figures has African features. I’m told.
The novel, People of the Book, recounts the history of the book with a steadily decreasing level of historical accuracy as the writer takes us farther and farther back in time. The modern venue involves an Australian book restorer who gets the job of stabilizing the manuscript for display in the museum in Sarajevo. As the restorer discovers physical clues in (or on) the book itself, author Geraldine Brooks brings us back in time, regaling us with a story that would explain each particular clue, with the time trips provided in order from most recent (World War II) to oldest (the 14th century, when the book was created). The most recent historical forays are somewhat plausible and based on a reasonable interpretation of history, but the earliest forays are entirely made up because we know nothing about the history of the book in those days.

And that is what makes the novel (and it is a novel, not a documentary) most interesting. The original book, and the fictionalized book in the novel, depict a woman with African features sitting at the seder table. Geraldine Brooks comes up with a very interesting fictionalized story to account for this.

Forensic book restoration, centuries of history, really bad bad guys and some pretty good good guys, epic twists and turns as well as highly unlikely coincidences that apparently really did happen, and a thoughtful perspective on the dynamic and complex history of Jews in a Muslim and Christian world, as well as a bit of modern mystery and suspense spiced up with a nice mixture of family, professional, and academic angst, combine to make for a very good read.

Thanks for suggesting it, Amy!

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EU will ban neonicotinoid pesticides to save the honey bees

Being a bee is hard. I’m speaking specifically of the honey bee, Apis mellifera, the one that produces the honey you buy in the store. Many insects, and other critters, eat by finding food and then eating it, and then they do that for a while and now and then reproduce by finding a mate, laying eggs that they perhaps put in a good location but thereafter leave alone, etc. etc. But honey bees do all of these thing in a way that makes it seem like they are trying to make it harder for them than it is for everyone else. Much of the food that honey bees eat is gathered at rare and hard to find sites (flowers), carried back to a central place that may be quite far away, then processed. Offspring are produced by a very small subset of a large colony, using a system involving several individuals who make places for the queen to lay the eggs around. Larvae are then taken good care of and fed. This whole thing takes place in a hive which can only be effectively placed in one of a limited number of locations. Since there is processed food (honey) and larvae (also good to eat) all in one place, the bee colony must have multiple ways of protecting itself, including picking a good location, making the hive hard to get into, and having a hoard of suicidal stingers ready to die in defense of the nest. Beyond this, sneaky invaders, other insects that might try to sneak into the hive, must be identified by guards.

Navigation over long distances, communicating with other bees about newly found hard to get and far away sources of food, mechanisms of controlling reproduction within the colony, thermoregulation of the hive, building and maintaining architecture, species recognition, a mechanism of changing behavior among a number of different tasks (thermoregulation, foraging, building the hive, attacking selected invaders, swarming) … Yeah, being a honey bee is hard.

Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) is a thing where the colonies of bees in a given area are affected by something that causes the number of bees to reduce in population over time … the worker bees seem to disappear … so the colony dies. Think about all the things I mentioned above. Any small subset of these things could be disrupted to cause something like CCD. The transfer of information about where to go to find food, and the process of foraging and navigating to food sources and back involves a lot of different mechanisms; the disruption of any one or two of those mechanisms might cause worker bees to fly off and not come back. The process of foraging at distance and carrying back food requires a great deal of energy. Any part of the process of maintenance and distribution of food to worker bees could cause them to starve or reduce in energy level, causing them to not return to the hive. Leaving most of these tasks and mechanisms untouched and operational but adding a pathogen that demands more energy from individual bees could have a similar effect. In other words, in the absence of any good information about what causes CCD, it would be very hard to come up with a simple explanation for that phenomenon on the basis of what bees do normally. The phenomenon can also be caused by any two or three of a dozen things, such that the cause in any given case could be very different from the cause in a different case.

To this we can add another feature of honey bees. For the most part, we are talking about bees that are not living in their native habitats. Our honey comes from a subset of honey bees that have been to varying degrees domesticated, and that are living in a climate that is not where they originally evolved. Imagine going to a region where chickens are grown but that is environmentally very different from the region where a chicken like bird lives normally, and deleting one or two of the key things we do to keep those chickens alive. I.e, leave all the chickens out for the winter in Montana. Not feed them. Etc. There would be “Coop collapse disorder” in no time. The fact that honey bees exist in a sort of liminal state of wildness (they forage in the wild, although the “wild” may be human maintained farm fields and orchards) and domestication (their hives are generally built and maintained by humans who may also provide heat and protection from predators) together with the fact that honey bees have undergone some degree of selection (to make them a bit less fierce, for instance) may mean that the complex web of physiological and behavioral adaptations that make bees “work” properly is somewhat more delicate than it might be for wild bees living in their native tropics.

I don’t mean to give the impression that bee experts have no idea what causes CCD. They do have ideas, evidence, and there has been a fair amount of research done (below are links to a few key blog posts that summarize much of this). The point I’m making here is that the complexity of CCD and the difficulty in understanding this phenomenon should not be a surprise.

Just now, the European Union has decided to implement a regulation that bans a certain kind of insecticide, neonicotinoid, from use in their purview, because it is possible that this insecticide has a negative impact (perhaps multiple negative impacts) on bees, contributing to CCD. This may be a good idea, even if the insecticide in question is not “the” primary cause of CCD, if the chemical simply makes CCD a much more likely thing to happen. Banning it may be like giving a patient with some horrid infection an IV of fluids. The IV is not directly treating the infection, but the patient may require the support provided by the IV (and other things they do for you in a hospital, like the great food and a TV strapped to the ceiling) may be what it takes to allow other treatments, or the patient’s own immune system, to bring the individual to a state of better health.

The ban was not universally supported. Voting against the bad were the United Kingdom, the Czech Republic, Italy, Hungary, Romania, Slovakia, Austria and Portugal; voting for the bad were Belgium, Bulgaria, Denmark, Estonia, Spain, France, Cyprus, Germany, Latvia, Luxembourg, Malta, the Netherlands, Poland, Slovenia and Sweden. Ireland, Lithuania, Finland and Greece abstained. This resulted in a vote that would not automatically institute the ban, but a decision by the controlling commission to move forward with the ban was made possible, and that is what has happened. The ban will run for two years and apply to flowering crops that normally attract bees. In a way, this is more of a giant experiment than an actual ban.

The Guardian reports:

Europe will enforce the world’s first continent-wide ban on widely used insecticides linked to serious harm in bees, after a European commission vote on Monday.

The landmark suspension is a victory for millions of environment campaigners concerned about dramatic declines in bees who were backed by experts at the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). But it is a serious defeat for the chemical companies who make billions a year from the products and also UK ministers – who voted against the ban. Both had argued the ban will harm food production.

Tonio Borg, health and consumer commissioner, said: “Our proposal is based on a number of risks to bee health identified by the EFSA, [so] the European commission will go ahead with its plan in coming weeks. I pledge to do my utmost to ensure that our bees, which are so vital to our ecosystem and contribute over €22bn annually to European agriculture, are protected.”

It is almost certainly not the case that bee researchers unanimously agree that neonicotinoid is the most important cause of CCD or that banning it will work. Neonicotinoid is actually a good kind of insecticide because it works by being taken up by plants, and thus, targets invading insects selectively, and also, affects insects that are not bothered much by other insecticides because the insects bore into the plant. So, there may be some serious consequences to agriculture in Europe caused by this ban.

It will be interesting to see what happens over time. I’m not sure how long it will take for the ban to fully take effect. Since it is added to soil, neonicotinoid will remain “in use” for a while after it is no longer applied. And, even if neonicotinoid was a key cause of problems in bees, it is quite possible that other causes were exacerbated by neonicotinoid use, and the effects of those causes may take longer to go away or become less important.

One interesting aspect of this ban is the way in which environmental groups and the chemical companies that make the insecticide have bifurcated into two distinct ways of thinking. Again, from the Guardian:

Greenpeace’s chief scientist, Doug Parr, said [of a dissenting vote by the UK]: “By not supporting the ban, environment secretary, Owen Paterson, has exposed the UK government as being in the pocket of big chemical companies and the industrial farming lobby.”…

But a spokesman for Syngenta, which makes one of the three neonicotinoids that have been suspended, said: “The proposal is based on poor science and ignores a wealth of evidence from the field that these pesticides do not damage the health of bees. The EC should [instead] address the real reasons for bee health decline: disease, viruses and loss of habitat.”


Prof Simon Potts, a bee expert at the University of Reading, said: “The ban is excellent news for pollinators. The weight of evidence from researchers clearly points to the need to have a phased ban of neonicotinoids….


“Bayer remains convinced neonicotinoids are safe for bees, when used responsibly and properly,” said a spokesman for Bayer Cropscience. “As a science-based company, Bayer is disappointed that clear scientific evidence has taken a back-seat in the decision making process.”

Both Bug Girl and Carl Zimmer have written a fair amount on this topic, and their posts include links to a great deal of additional information.

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UFO’s, Climate Change, Child Abuse

What do UFO’s, the belief that magnetism causes climate change but atmospheric gasses are not related, child molestation, and academic sock puppeting have in common with sea level rise? To find out, set aside some time to carefully read this: UFOs, Sea Level Rise And The Magnetism Of Climate Science Denial and then click on this.

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Bangladesh and Sea Level Rise

You’ve all heard about the horrible tragedy in Bangladesh, still unfolding. Not to distract from that event, or diminish its importance, I thought it would be interesting to have a look at that low lying country in relation to long term sea level rise caused by climate change. I am making no claim here about the maximum rate of sea level rise or about the timing of sea level rise. But the truth is, there have been times in the past when there was virtually no year round ice (glaciers) anywhere on this planet, and sea levels were much higher than they are now. During a time period not too different from the present (probably not as warm, or just about the same) sea levels were several meters (maybe about 6 meters) higher than they are now, suggesting that even under current conditions a lot of the ice in Greenland and Antarctica could melt. In other words, there is an argument that even if we curtail global warming now and keep things at their current somewhat warmed up level ice may continue to melt enough to raise the sea by meters. If we continue to warm the atmosphere and the oceans, the total sea level rise could be much, much higher.

Using the interactive map here, let’s look at Dhaka, the site of the recent and ongoing tragedy in Bangladesh. This is appropriate because it is the first world thirst for goods and luxury that produces both sweat shops like the one that just collapsed, killing hundreds of workers, and that produces global warming that will also produce catastrophic sea level rise.

Here’s a map of the area now, showing the local terrain:

Dhaka, Bangladesh.
Dhaka, Bangladesh.

If the entire Greenland Ice Sheet melted (but nothing else), or if a bunch of Greenland and a bunch of Antarctica melted, to produce about 7 meters of sea level rise, this is what the map would look like:

Screen Shot 2013-04-29 at 8.42.56 AM

This is not what the region would look like, actually. The sediment here is all soft delta material what would be eroded away horizontally in no time. Another way to think about this is that if the sea went up just a meter or two, this entire region would probably be eaten away by horizontal erosion very quickly. Anyway, let’s add some more water and see what this first approximation would look like. Imagine if the West Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets both contributed maximally to sea level rise. This would be the minimal result:

Screen Shot 2013-04-29 at 8.43.17 AM

If all the glacial ice in the world melted, and sea levels rose to the maximum height they’ve ever been, our closeup look of the region would look like this:

Screen Shot 2013-04-29 at 8.43.32 AM

As you probably know, Bangladesh is one of the lowest elevation larger countries in the world. In fact, it seems like Bangladesh is defined almost entirely by its topography; Bangladesh is the delta. If we take the same maximal sea level rise as in the last graph, and step back a ways to see the effect at large scale, this is what we get:

They would have to call Bangladesh something else.
They would have to call Bangladesh something else.

By the way, there’s a cool book coming out on the topic, Rising Seas: Past, Present, Future.

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James Hansen’s Legacy

James Hansen, author of “Storms of My Grandchildren: The Truth About The Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity“, recently announced his retirement from his position as director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies. My friend John Abraham write’s about Hansen’s retirement in his inaugural* post in the new blog “Climate Consensus – The 97%” …

What does this mean for climate science and the future of the Earth? It is impossible to know now but instead of looking forward, I want to shine a light on what Jim has done for climate science, what he signifies to the larger public, and how he is viewed by current and upcoming scientists.

John’s post is here: What’s climate scientist James Hansen’s legacy? As the scientist ‘retires’ from his duties at Nasa, John Abraham assesses the impact of a climate change leader. Ho have a look.

*An earlier post at the Guardian by John has been prepended to this new blog, but this is the first post by him since the blog came into existence last week.

Photo from the Guardian story.